Emilia is a play written by playwright Morgan Lloyd Malcolm. Emilia is Emilia Bassano, born in 1569 as the daughter of a royal musician. After her father dies when Emilia is just 7 years old she comes to live with Susan Bertie, the Countess of Kent. She gets a good education and introduced to well off men at the court. As there are many uncertainties about the details of Emilia’s life the play describes a possible version of it.
The book was a gift from a dear friend and it made the message resonate that much stronger because of it.
It’s heartbreaking to read how Emilia feels like she is being silenced and tamed.
“My voice feels too loud in here. I must try to whisper more. Though sometimes I can’t help but scream! […] I must try to only speak when I’m asked. No screeching. No jumping about. I’m a young lady now. This is what I’ve learnt. You see? I can be tamed. I know now that as I grow I must also shrink. I must not take up too much space. If I am to marry well I need to practice these tricks to hush my whole being so that I am only seen when needed.”
Emilia is afraid that getting married would mean that she won’t be able to write anymore, that her life will just be focused on supporting her husband and she opts instead to become the mistress of the older Lord Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon and a cousin of Queen Elizabeth I. Lord Carey makes sure that Emilia is well taken care of financially and allows her to continue writing. When he gets Emilia pregnant though he arranges for her to marry her cousin Alphonso Lanier. In the play, it is suggested that Alphonso is gay and that the marriage is one of convenience for both of them. Emilia gives birth to a son that she calls Henry, presumably after his father.
Emilia and William Shakespeare meet by chance and they fall in love with one another and have a passionate affair. Emilia even gets pregnant and gives birth to Shakespeare’s daughter, Odilya, who dies when she is only 10 months old. Odilya’s death breaks something in Emilia and she feels an even stronger drive to write. Her frustration at not being able to get her work published and see it performed as Shakespeare does his work reaches a boiling point.
“The pain and anguish of your own losses written large upon the stage. Does it help? I think it must. If only my own grief could be dissipated as such. But it can’t. Can it? And it is because of this that grief is not my only pain. It is my whole existence in your shadow. It is women born to a status that dooms us to your ill will”.
For me and hopefully for most people living now it’s easy to feel Emilia’s anger and frustration about how unequal women were being treated. In her time she was one of the very few people advocating of equal rights for men and women and it was a dangerous opinion to share.
As Alphonso is spending all of their money and leaves them in debt, Emilia goes to live with Lady Margaret Clifford, Countess of Cumberland and her daughter Lady Anne Clifford. Lady Margaret is also a feminist whose husband George has multiple indiscreet affairs. She asks Emilia to be a tutor for Lady Anne and to write poems for women, to warn them about the wicked ways of men.
As women’s writings are censored and they are only allowed to write about religion and virtues they distribute and reproduce the poems through an underground network of women. When some of them fall into the wrong (male) hands they get paid a visit by Sir Thomas Howard and it becomes clear how dangerous it is to advocate equality.
“Instead of giving thanks for the generous and kind disposition of all men she seems to suggest that men are to be ignored and discarded in favour of a new order in which women are seen as equal. This preposterous notion gives no thought to clear fact that for as long as time immemorial women have never been equal to men and instead must accept the natural order of things. Inferior. Ever more so and subservient to the end. This poetry, if you can call it that, is akin to a call to arms and it is the most dangerous rubbish I’ve ever read. […] Do not forget the growing discomfort the spread of a certain kind of sorcery that this could be described as. You would not want to be tried as a witch Emilia – I fear your crimes would not go down well.”
As Emilia and Alphonso hit rock bottom financially Emilia starts to teach poor women, both because she wants to give these women a voice and to make a bit of money. The women embolden each other to speak up louder and louder, despite the danger. They encourage Emilia to start writing feminist messages hidden in religious poems, so her work can get published and it finally does. These published poems are the only things that she wrote that have been saved for us to read. At least the only ones that she has been credited with as the writer…
The fierceness of Emilia and the other women is intense and inspiring. It’s emotional even when reading it. I’m sad that I won’t get to see the play (unless it will be extended), but there is talk about a film, so I’m keeping my hopes up. If you are in London while it’s still running I urge you to go and see it. If not I highly recommend the book. Even if just to read Emilia’s final speech, which is quite something.
We’ve come a long way, but we also still have a long way to go. And these days we even have to be vigilant to make sure that we are not going backward!
“Listen to us. Listen to every woman who came before you. Listen to every woman with you now. And listen when I say to you to take the fire as your own. That anger that you feel it is yours and you can use it. We want you to. We need you to. Look how far we’ve come already. Don’t stop now.”